From pub nights to hard hats, the locals-run Onion Collective made East Quay arts centre in Watchet, Somerset, a reality

Walk along Watchet’s harbour front and you’d be forgiven for thinking a jumble of colourful containers had been blown in off the sea by a particularly severe storm. But this bizarre, piratical encampment featuring a candy-striped triangular roof and boxes on stilts is actually the new East Quay arts centre, a community-driven project whose origins are as unlikely as the form of the building itself. Where once a development of luxury seaside flats was proposed, a group of local women have instead created a remarkable complex of galleries and studios, with a restaurant, classroom, geology workshop, print studio and paper mill – as well as some quirky holiday rentals to boot.

“We wanted to change the sense that there are no opportunities here,” says Georgie Grant of the Onion Collective, the community interest company behind the £7m project. “Rather than see the usual kind of commercial development that has no community benefit, we wanted to empower people to shape the place themselves.”

Since Watchet’s working harbour closed in the 1990s, seeing mass job losses, it has been struggling to recover. A marina opened in 2001 to try to boost the economy, but the closure of the local paper mill in 2015 took a fifth of the town’s jobs with it. The area now has the lowest social mobility in England, with around 25% of young people going to university, compared with 50% nationally.

When plans for a big mixed-use development on the harbour front by Urban Splash were scuppered by the 2008 financial crisis, Grant and her gang of fellow young parents saw their chance to do something different.

“It began with cider,” says Jess Prendergrast, recalling how the women’s Thursday evening pub nights turned into plotting how to take over the site for something more useful. “We realised there were a lot of people like us in Watchet – overqualified and underemployed, who’d had successful careers in London and then moved to the coast to have kids. If we pooled our energies we could do something for the better of the town.”

Prendergrast and her sister Naomi Griffith, who grew up at a nearby zoo, Tropiquaria, joined forces with Grant and another friend Rachel Kelly in 2012 to form the Onion Collective – so-named for the vegetable’s many layers, and its rural, earthy connotations. (The group has also been known to make grown men cry). With backgrounds in economic consultancy, marketing and TV production, they made for a formidable team, since joined by others with experience in arts education, tourism and sustainable development. Now numbering 22, they fund their endeavours through consultancy work, helping other communities and councils around the country realise their plans.

After conducting town-wide consultations in 2013, and convincing the council to give their alternative plan a go, they raised money for a feasibility study and secured a whopping £5.3m from the government’s Coastal Communities Fund, the largest such grant awarded.

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